Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: History will not be kind to Theresa May, who ended up author of her own misfortune

A misjudged election and a flawed Brexit withdrawal agreement left her with few friends, says Alban Maginness

Painful exit: Theresa May leaving Downing Street with her husband, Philip
Painful exit: Theresa May leaving Downing Street with her husband, Philip
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Will history be more generous to Theresa May than her many and varied contemporary critics, not least those in the Conservative Party? One will have to wait and see, but the omens are not good for her historic reputation.

She can undoubtedly be cast as the unfortunate victim of the vicious and still unresolved civil war over membership of the European Union that has blighted the Tory party since the days of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Alternatively, she can be seen as the author of her own misfortune, having made a series of calamitous mistakes that marred her leadership and eventually drove her out of office.

In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on Europe, David Cameron suddenly resigned, unwilling to implement the decision of the British people to leave Europe.

It was not the most honourable of decisions, for it was he who had devised the strategy of the promise of a referendum in order to defeat the rising tide of Ukip.

It was a successful strategy that ensured the return of the Conservatives to government by themselves in 2015, with a working majority of 12, without the Liberal Democrats. But this cynical ploy had a high price, and that was putting the promise into effect.

The unexpected result in favour of Brexit was a disaster for the pro-Remain Cameron government. Instead of dealing with the mess himself, Cameron took the cowardly way out and resigned. Theresa May, although a Remainer, audaciously attempted to deal with the aftermath of the referendum.

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In the leadership election, Theresa May, as a strong and long-serving Home Secretary, was elected unopposed. Her coronation was in retrospect unwise, as an election victory over leading Brexiteers Gove or Johnson could have given her greater political authority as a leader in dealing with the vexed problem of negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU.

It should also be noted that her six-year stint in the Home Office was not as successful as it may have appeared at the time.

Her record on immigration was hardly a triumph when one considers that her aim was to reduce the numbers coming into the UK to below 100,000. Her target was never reached - the number actually increased.

Her relations with the British police service was also acrimonious. On the other hand, she successfully established the National Crime Agency to deal with the serious threat of highly sophisticated organised crime.

It was her misjudgement to call a snap general election in 2016, when there was no political advantage nor need to call it. As a result, she lost her majority and with it her political authority.

In order to remain in office, she was forced to depend on the quixotic DUP, under the parliamentary leadership of Nigel Dodds, to support her government through a confidence and supply arrangement. This was to haunt and tether her during the remainder of her term in office.

But her gravest mistake was to insist on laying down strict, incompatible red lines for negotiations with the EU. It was this fatal decision that led to the withdrawal agreement, which May agreed with Europe. It was too narrow for Remainers and too generous for Leavers to support. It had the dubious merit of displeasing all.

If she had not insisted on these red lines, or had at least built in some flexibility, then she could have delivered a much more sellable deal.

It was those red lines that were the genesis of the backstop arrangement. The backstop was her way of preventing a hard border in Ireland. The fact that it now covers all of the UK was to appease the DUP, who objected to the backstop applying solely to Northern Ireland.

The backstop will continue to haunt her successor, Boris Johnson, and will prove as difficult a problem for him as it was for her.

As a politician she lacked the stature of the 'Iron Lady', Margaret Thatcher, or the lovable Mo Mowlam. She was too strait-laced to be loved, and for her to be greatly admired, she needed to produce something like winning an impossible war, or bringing about an impossible peace. Unfortunately for her, such achievements were to prove elusive, and her deal with the EU, although in itself a major achievement, was largely rejected by her own party.

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony memorably declares at the assassinated Caesar's funeral: "... the good that men do, is oft interred with their bones."

So it may well be with ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, although a transparently honest and dutiful politician, that the good she has done will also be interred by the landslide of opposition and opprobrium that she suffered throughout her troubled premiership.

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